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Whistler Film Festival showed resolve to bump attendance in 2021

Despite COVID hesitancy and putrid weather, hybrid WFF saw attendance increase 11%
Screen Shot 2022-03-15 at 3.31.52 PM
L to R: Daniel Doheny, Asivak Koostachin, Louriza Tronco, Katie Boland and Rumbie Muzofa, Whistler Film Festival's 2021 Stars to Watch.

In many ways, the 21st annual Whistler Film Festival (WFF) held in December had to contend with even more challenges than its COVID-curtailed 2020 edition.

Held between surges of the virus’ Delta and Omicron variants, organizers were met with their fair share of COVID-19 hesitancy, at a time when the film festival circuit was only just beginning to chug into action again. They also had a new executive director at the helm, Angela Heck, who was tasked with ushering the festival into its first truly hybrid in-person/online edition, with the bulk of the film lineup available to stream. Oh, and did I mention the in-person portion of the festival held from Dec. 1 to 5 coincided with an atmospheric river that left much of B.C. covered in water?

“It was a completely unusual year,” Heck says.

In spite of the challenges, WFF organizers showed resolve in a year that made it incredibly difficult to predict and plan for any event, let alone one so well known for its packed theatres and filmmaker-friendly networking sessions. Across all of its programming and platforms, WFF attracted a total of 11,939 attendees, an increase of 10.5 per cent from the 2020 event. In 2021, attendees could catch a screening in person from Dec. 1 to 5, or online through Dec. 31.

With inter-provincial travel limited at the time, the festival enjoyed a strong local showing. Seventy-three per cent of attendees were from B.C. (including 44 per cent hailing from the Sea to Sky), 13 per cent from Ontario and Quebec, eight per cent from elsewhere in Canada, and five per cent joined online from around the globe.  

While recognizing WFF will always be an “in-person first” festival, Heck acknowledged the benefits digital streaming can offer and indicated the hybrid model is here to stay.

“When we did this last year, everybody was streaming and everybody was stuck in their homes. So this year, there was a lot more competition out there but we still held our own and there was some really great pick-up again,” she says. “Our B.C. audiences, in particular, came with us but online streaming is really appreciated for so many reasons. People have different things competing for their time, so having the option to be able to see these really amazing films that you don't get on other platforms is something that the feedback has been tremendous about.”

Streaming also came with its own silver linings on the industry side of the festival. Heck says landing cinematographer Ari Wegner—director of photography for Jane Campion’s Oscar-nominated Western, The Power of the Dog, which also screened at WFF—for a conversation with Riverdale star Nathalie Boltt, who attended in-person from Whistler while Wegner Zoomed in—would not have happened had Wegner had to travel to the resort.

Vernā Myers was another major get for the festival. The inclusion strategist and Netflix VP beamed in for a much-needed conversation on diversity and inclusivity in Hollywood. (Both talks are available to stream at watch.whistlerfilmfestival.com/wff365.)

“People want to have the in-person contacts for networking and that kind of serendipity that happens at a festival. That did happen, for sure: people were finding creative collaborations; deals were made. But it's a question of scale,” Heck notes. “What was really interesting is that we were able to access people that may not have been able to travel that were really high-level.”

The 21st WFF is also notable for achieving directorial gender parity for the first time. Fifty-six per cent of the films at this year’s fest were directed or co-directed by women or non-binary individuals. Selected from more than 1,550 submissions, the 2021 WFF lineup featured 81 films from 20 countries—including 17 first-time filmmakers. Juries handed out 16 awards and more than $272,000 in cash and prizes.

Canadian and international filmmakers are invited to submit films of all lengths and genres by Aug. 15 in order to be considered for the 2022 festival. Learn more at whistlerfilmfestival.com.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2020 WFF had fewer films available to stream than the 2021 edition. In fact, the 2020 lineup counted 97 films, all of which were viewable online.